The Future of Humankind
The Montreal Review, March 2010
An essay on Rousseau's First and Second Discourse and Kant's "Beginning of Human History"
I want to speculate on a difficult question: Is it more reasonable to look toward the future of humankind with hope or despair? I consider this question as difficult because I have no ready answer to it, nor any expectation that I am able to reach some satisfactory conclusion. Speculating on future is always an attempt of prophesying. History knows an endless number of fallen prophecies. Seldom and blessed with the light of the truth are those who were able to look at the future without the delusions of their own personality and time. The only motive to write a text on this topic should be curiosity and amusement of thinking.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau is not my favourite author. I prefer the optimism and pragmatism of John Lock, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, but they are not suitable for such a metaphysical question as human fate. To deal with human fate you need not only reason, but also sensitivity, and Rousseau possesses sensitivity in excess. I am afraid that I will not be able to understand Rousseau completely. Whenever I read his works, I do not feel that immediate natural sense of sympathy, of unity, the feeling that the author has the same emotions and visions like mine. Kant, for example, would be more close to me, but his thinking is so rational, so mathematical, and so void of sentiment. Rousseau is blazing, especially in his First Discourse. He is trying to be cold and rational in the Second Discourse, but there the strong emotions also are barely concealed.
Prophets are always passionate. From Isaiah to Marx we see ethics and morality blended with reasoning and judgements. Prophets are not scientists, even not thinkers. Rather they are oracles of Divine. They want your soul, not your brain. They deal with mystics, they can argue that their words are scientific, knowledgeable, but their goal is to demolish the edifice of the "normal," the cathedral of the generally accepted truth. If you want to demolish the traditional narratives, you cannot speak the language of science that often is nothing but dogma. If you want to break down the universe, you cannot do it with the instruments of tradition. The effective critique is possible only when you sincerely abandon the wisdom of the present day, the wisdom of your contemporaries. Rousseau's aim in both Discourses is to demolish the illusions of modern man and his beloved "civilization".
After reading Adam Smith's " Wealth of the nations " and Karl Marx's "Das Kapital " I asked myself, why are these works, these huge volumes, so powerful, so attractive? Why do people read them? A. Smith and Marx do not say anything new. A. Smith is repeating the ideology of the French Physiocrats, Marx's most popular theory of surplus value is an extension and distortion of Lock's labour theory. What makes their writing so seducing? The size of their work? It is so huge that the reader has time to dive in it, to get used with its inner logic and harmony; he has enough time to build a friendship with the author and at the end to become unable to depart from his ideas. Or the secret of their excellence is hidden in the language they use, their capacity to make a synthesis of all previous knowledge - a simple, but powerful synthesis? Perhaps all these assumptions combined give the answer. But there is more. The real source of their power of persuasion and attraction is the myth. They play with the oldest human myths. Their works are works of ethics; they show us what is good and bad, moral and immoral. Under the veil of the logic and "scientific method," in the bottom of all these volumes of words and reasoning, there is religion, a strong Judeo-Christian fundament .
Why do I speak about prophecies, great thinkers, myths, and science? Because Rousseau, in my understanding, uses the same methods of persuasion like many capable writers before and after him - he derives his logic from the source of our culture, the myth, which exists within us, on which the Western civilization is built and still functioning. The myth that is devised to serve as an antidote to every new illusion, the ancient idea of God and Creation that keeps us stable in every epoch and age.
In both discourses, Rousseau speaks about the time before and after the Original Sin. His story, his arguments are Biblical, clothed in modern dresses. I do not know if he does this intentionally or not. His idealization of the "savage" is nothing but idealization of the times when people, according to the myth, lived in Paradise. " The Lost Paradise " can be an appropriate subtitle of both discourses. Rousseau has a good knowledge of Biblical myth, he uses it as an initial point for his argumentation. He develops the Genesis story of the fall of humankind loading his conclusions with moral and ethics, his reasoning with classical history and philosophy.
But did Rousseau want to answer to the question about human future? No. His reasoning is constrained in the framework of the present and past. His critique is a critique of modernity. His intention is not to predict, but to judge. Yet moral judgements always lead us to the question of future, because what is the value of one or another moral advice or appraisal if not its importance now and tomorrow? If you do this or that, if you choose this or that, you will receive this or that. Moral judgement is simultaneously a rule and promise. Be good, honest and impartial, invest your time and money with care, have the right sense for the value of time, money and things, do not follow your emotions, but learn how to use your brain, learn the art of self-control, observe the Ten Commandments and believe in the Golden Rule, and you will be blessed with success. 1 Judging the human civilization, seeing in it corruption of the true human nature, Rousseau creates a narrative, a tale about the human degradation. He turns to the past because of the demands of the present, and so he induces us to think about the future. Do we want to continue to live in delusion? He does not see progress in human history. He sees what the Biblical prophets have already seen - regress, decay, and enslavement. Rousseau is a pessimist.
We live with the awareness, with the conviction , that we are going to die. This is a very pessimistic and pitiful existence. But we are accustomed to it and we like to forget our supposed end. Knowledge of death and its terrors, writes Rousseau in Origins and Foundations of Inequality among Men , is one of the first acquisitions that man has made in moving away from the animal condition. 2 Our fear of death, our fears that we could lose our friends, children, homes and sources of income control our life more than we are able to realize and want to admit. We are in a constant battle to survive, and this battle is against imaginations, against pessimistic expectations, this is a battle against ghosts, ideas, born in our mind and suggested from outside. How can a person live a relatively good, fruitful and happy life, how can a person be free when, on the one hand, he or she is pressed by personal fears, and on the other hand, as a social creature, he or she is modelled, shaped by social norms, delusions, requirements and fears?
To be free, man should be devoid of fear. To be mature man should relay on his own fears and delusions. Go back to the ancient simplicity, Rousseau preaches. Return to the solitary existence of the savage, and so, you will be saved at least from the fears that the society have been imposing on you since your childhood. The escape from the falsehood social matrix that enslaves you with its endless artificial requirements, rewards and punishments, makes you half-free, nearly free. But is there something like "half-freedom"? Freedom is an absolute. If you do not achieve it completely, it is not freedom. No human intellect or talent is able to teach people to be free and fearless; many shining attempts have been made, but all unsuccessful. The Son of Man died for us and we are still the same pessimistic creatures, slaves of illusions and corrupted ideas. We assert that we believe, millions pray and profess their belonging to any possible system of belief, but in reality the biggest church is those of insecurity, fear and mass delusion.
How can somebody be optimistic for the future of humankind if he is convicted to be a pessimist for life from the moment when he pronounces the first articulate word? If there were a real optimistic individual, he would be able to convince at least his children to be like him. His children, his "apostles", would convince their children, and so one day there would be a nation of happy people. Reading the Bible ( or Ayn Rand, Norman Vincent Peale, Marx, Deepak Chopra or any intellectual and spiritual guru you choose ) you can be an optimist for a while, but with the first step in the water of a real lake you will sink. You cannot walk on the water. You cannot be an optimist, to defeat alone this magnificent, fearsome world. You need a society of friends who did the same, who wanted the same you want and succeeded. Without example, without a society of optimists, of like-minded , you could fix your mind for a while, you would feel freedom like a God, but with the first symptoms of suffering and sickness, with the first probation, you would realize how cheap God you had been, how illusory your freedom was. I will return to this question later when I speak about the Kantian view of enlightenment.
Thomas à Kempis, a few centuries before Rousseau, preached: Do not expect life without pain, learn to live with pain; you have been called to suffer and to work, not to idle and gossip away your time; run away from the society. Renounce all riches, dignities, honours, friends, and associates, consider yourself a pilgrim, an exile on earth and you will be free. 3 "The life of man upon earth is a warfare, and his days are like the days of a hireling" (Job 7:1).
Einstein and Spinoza preach that a person could be free if he "depersonalizes" his existence , if he throws off the bondage of egocentric cravings, desires, and fears, 4 and learn to explore the world with the curiosity of a child. We must detach us from our insignificant emotions, and be mesmerized by the harmony of creation. The curiosity will enlighten us, will occupy our attention and actions, and will replace the fruitless illusions of social prejudices and personal egoism. However, this is still "half-freedom."
Plato offers his version of the path to freedom - you must understand that your fears are shades, your existence is in darkness and a lie, and it will be so until somebody achieves the feat to see the light (the truth) and finds the words to explain to us, the enslaved, what is difference between real and illusory. Unfortunately, Plato was not able to find these words and we are still in darkness.
Rousseau revives the great myth of lost paradise to demolish the illusions of modern man and his beloved "civilization." Do not follow the prejudices of this corrupted world is the advice in the Discourses; Civilization is a human achievement, but the majority of people know only its dirty foam. Do not stay on the surface, dive down where the fundaments are. Be merciful, compassionate, humble, feel pity, do not run behind the shadows of the "civilized" society, this makes you unhappy.
We can find escapism in every system of knowledge and sermon.
The problem is our education, our upbringing, our collective one-dimensional thinking. And not only these, the problem is our human nature, the reason and our ability to imagine things, to construct the future and to live in accordance with the shadows of reason. If our great enemy are the collective and personal delusions, the pitiful existence in intellectual unconsciousness or half-consciousness , the mutations of human understanding, if the wrong ideas are the enemy, not the evil human nature or the cruelty of Nature, we have no other choice for achieving better existence, but to fight these ideas and illusions with opposite ones. Let's imagine if the human civilization has taken another way of development. If humans from the beginning of their path to civilized life were enough clever (or mature) to delude themselves that life is interesting, curious, with many pleasures and amazing discoveries and, of course, occasional pains , and that the big pain finally leads to a total liberation, that we call "death," which is the biggest mystery that is waiting to be revealed under our curious eyes, how different the human civilization would be today! Interesting, Rousseau and Kant, in my opinion, offer some conclusions in the works, which I use for the goals of this paper; conclusions that in their synthesis, give an imaginary, but optimistic view about the future of humankind.
The other face of fear is hope. The former is connected with pain, the latter with pleasure. Both are emotions and ideas. Both are general qualities of human nature, and consequently of human civilization. Rousseau is a critic of fear in civilized society; Kant is a prophet of rational hope. (Emotions of hope and fear cannot be in themselves good, says Spinoza in his Ethics.)
Why does the civilization deserve criticism? Rousseau's answer in the First Discourse is because Arts and Sciences have monopolized the truth, they are the "external ornaments" that have replaced the true human nature. They impose on us corrupted goals and imaginations, false promises and apprehensions, and they distract us from what is valuable. The illusions of arts, the demons of images, the seducing idols of social life, the sickly desire for recognition, social applauses, the "meritocratic" world in which we are all forced to live, the constant and imperfect evaluation that makes us not better humans, but skilful manipulators and lost careerists, all these, according to Rousseau, are the rotten fruits of civilization. "O passion to gain distinction, exclaims Rousseau, of what are you not capable?" 5 It is capable to destroy everything that has value only to satisfy an illusion.
Pretending that they bring progress, knowledge and liberation, Arts and Sciences actually impose limitations on the natural ability of every individual to think, act and grow independently. They destroyed Athens and Rome, they corrupted the manners in these great nations, the destruction of ancient empires came from within, not from outside. Today, the right skills (the market value of your abilities) and social status are more important than your natural abilities and strength to act morally. This leads to degradation, to distortion of natural development of human talents and inclinations. We see servants upon horses, and princes walking as servants upon the earth. 6 The Arts and Sciences do not support virtues, because virtues do not teach you how to compete, how to be important, how to build feeling of superiority, they teach you to serve, to be humble. In the face of modern man, any seclusion is a sign of weakness. But the truth is that civilization equalizes the people, the life in civilized society makes people slaves of conformism, mass delusions, and social manners. "We no longer dare seem what we really are, but lie under a perpetual constraint; in the meantime the herd of men which we call society, all act under the same circumstances exactly alike..." 7
The biggest sin of human civilization is in its departure from the basics of human existence, from the simplicity of the real human needs. Where is the fundament, where are the true values? Can humanity survive if all humans run behind a parading lie, if we are all blind for the truths and fundaments of existence? This is the question and the judgement in the First Discourse.
How does humanity let this state of things? In the Second Discourse, Rousseau writes that in primordial times evil passions did not exist, because people were not corrupted by society. In the past, man was able to feel a simple, but powerful emotion - the pity that moderates human egoism. The "gentle voice" of pity was more powerful than the cold formulas of reason; there were no invented laws, morals and virtues; there was a natural and active mutual aid. "Do to others this as you want to be done to you". In primordial times, there was no vanity, no property, no competition, there was no inequality based on chance - chance to receive the best education, to be born in "good" family, to have the "right" nationality and color of skin. In the past, there was no oppression, because there was no property. Nobody was able to force his weaker fellow to obey; people were equal and free, oppression was a dangerous, expensive and stupid undertaking.
Ironically, according to Rousseau, this initial state of freedom has been destroyed by the mutual assistance, by this mythic "gentle voice" of pity. Mutual assistance and the following realization of mutual interest gave birth to inequality. Mutual dependence created the civilized state of living. People started to associate, they created groups and settlements, marked their property; their material state improved, but with abundance came the spiritual degradation - jealousy, competition, envy. People's differences, their talents and social status, made them competitors, warriors, criminals. The humankind entered the state of war. Laws and punishments have been invented. There was no any longer more security, in either poverty or wealth! The biggest church of modernity is those of insecurity, fear and mass delusion . The "enlightened" preachers, speaking from the pulpits of science, are hypocrites; their intellectual speculations are an end in itself, if they are not self-satisfied fools, they are intellectual charlatans.
Every morning, leaving our homes, we see the modern man "always active, sweats, agitates himself, torments himself incessantly in order to seek still more laborious occupations, he works to death... He pays court to the great whom he hates, and to the rich whom he scorns. He spares nothing in order to obtain the honour of serving them..." 8 These words of Rousseau are an echo of James's exclamation: "Listen, my dear brothers... Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court?" (James 2:5-6)
We are all slaves of social prejudices, we are morally corrupted creatures because we prize only things that are scarce, competition is the center of our life, and we are not able to value ourselves if we do not compare with others, the misery of others is a measure of our success, even of our happiness, and on judgement of others, we judge ourselves. "...We have only a deceitful and frivolous exterior, honour without virtue, reason without wisdom, and pleasure without happiness." 9 This is the verdict of Rousseau. We must look to the future of humankind with despair. In the Discourses Rousseau is not looking for answers about how humankind can overcome its miserable state. Here we can turn to Kant.
"Immaturity!" is the answer of Kant. Rousseau speaks about human immaturity. It is real. His observations are true. But this is not a reason for pessimism or drama. Rousseau's observations are true, but his conclusions are wrong. The lamentation for the lost paradise is not appropriate. There is progress. The present situation is not irreversible; we are living in a process of enlightenment. Yes, we are not living in an enlightened age, but the human civilization is progressing toward it. 10
We should not be afraid or disturbed by our imaginations, the illusions help us to grow, the experience makes us mature. Imaginations, the fears and hopes are not irrational; in their nature, they are a fruit of our reason. Using the same fundamental narrative, the Genesis story of human fall, in his "Beginning of Human History" Kant draws a light picture of human fate. Yes, we departed from the beautiful natural state. We disregarded the advice and wisdom of Nature (or God); we followed our imagination, a desire authentically human, and we become free. With the act of original sin, we decided to be free. Our imaginations did not prepare us for the troubles of freedom; departing from the natural state, from the "guardianship of the nature," we started from zero, from "the edge of the abyss"; we are often lost in our journey, but we have survived all hardships, and we continue to move ahead toward a future where the real freedom exists.
The Rousseau's "savage" was good because he was God's creation; the newborn civilized man was bad, because it was a human work. "History of nature begins with good, for it is God's work; the history of freedom begins with badness, for it is man's work." 11 We started from the low to achieve the high. How are we achieving the high? We do this with our ability to construct an imaginative future, to create plans with the help of our reason and desires. Humans do not accept death; they do not stand the lie. They experiment; the dirty foam of civilization cannot conceal human progress. Man's reason and desires want answers, a real freedom. The greatest goal of reason is to convince itself that there is no death. Freedom from death, gradual refining of our desires, the purge of the unnecessary and even harmful cravings or fears, is the future of humankind. The immature reason wants to grow. We preserved the idea of God, of the absolute, transcendent Good; we will stay religious until the end. We prize Science and Arts not to delude ourselves, nor to feed our egoism and vices, but to cross it with our belief. Science is a human child. One day (God knows when) science and religion will reconcile, and this will be the day of liberation - freedom from , and freedom to in one. Freedom from the shadows of our immature mind, and freedom to act under the enlightened reason.
Expectation of the future, says Kant, is the most inexhaustible source of cares and troubles. But it is also the most inexhaustible source of hopes and successes.
The story of Cain and Abel. Cain first decided to honour God and was outcast. Why did God prefer Abel, what was wrong with Cain's gift? Kant's interpretation of this strange story is that God knew the vices of settled man, and the innocence of the herder. The civilized man still had no senses to understand his own vices, nor did he know the dangers of his half-freedom; he was aggrieved, and he killed his brother.
According to Kant, physical maturity precedes the moral one. The physical maturity is a gift from nature; we have no influence over it. Moral maturity is a human undertaking. People become morally mature late, and this type of maturity can be achieved only independently, with the advance of individual experience. Moral can be taught, but not learned. It is an individual effort. We can achieve good manners through learning, we can learn the basics of social behaviour as we learn to speak, but we cannot so easily do the same with our moral. That is why people do not learn from history. That is why generation after generation we repeat the same mistakes. Nero had a great teacher in Seneca; Commodus had a great father in Marcus Aurelius; Rehoboam had a great father in Solomon. Moral sense cannot be transmitted easily from human to human, and from generation to generation. Technical knowledge, science, grow in steady progress, specialization helps distribution and advancement of skills, but the level of moral feeling moves slowly, and often moral immaturity causes historical setbacks that return people from positions in Sciences and Arts that had already been achieved.
This fact does not embarrass Kant's optimism. The reflective person feels grief, "discontentedness with the providence that governs the entire course of the world," this person thinks that there is no hope for something better. But for Kant (like Hegel) everything is necessary, even the war. The constant expectation of war, this Metternich's "perpetual peace," is evil, but even in evil, we can find hope: "Look at China, which because of its location has no powerful enemy to fear, but only an occasional unforeseen attack and in which every trace of freedom has been wiped out." 12 The war creates some respect for humanity. It is an "indispensible" experience for bringing human civilization to a higher stage.
It is childish (immature), says Kant, to fear death without loving life. It is not important how long we live, but how happy and free we are. It is also wrong to yearn for some new "Golden Age," and simultaneously to lament for the lost Paradise. We should not forget that now is important - how we think and how we act. We should be content with the Providence (Job's dilemma) and be concentrated on our responsibilities as moral beings. The mature reason does not accept the burden of wrong concepts. I cannot say it better than Kant: "Contentment with providence and with the course of human things as a whole, which do not progress from good to bad, but gradually develop from worse to better; and in this progress nature herself has given everyone a part to play that is both his own and well within his powers." 13
To return to the question of the "society of friends" (as opposite of a "society of pastors" 14) I conclude for myself that we do not need teachers to teach us how to be moral, spiritually mature, and free. We do not need guardians and preachers to remind us what is good and what is bad, because we know that our heart and everyday experience is our best teacher. Nor do we need a reward for our "righteousness" to keep our belief in Good alive. We should be free from both the burden of social (or political) approval and the Calvinistic restlessness. But we need friends that are free like us, mature, people "enlightened," wise, humble, and brave. People who share their inner experience, who use their reason publicly, as Kant says in "What is Enlightenment?," 15 without the constraint of any authority or public approval, but acting only under the requirements of their conscience . Kant and Rousseau perhaps are such people. We are not alone. We can find many enlightened people with different occupations, not only philosophers and preachers, and from different social status, nationality and gender. We have no other choice, but to look toward the future of humanity with hope.
1 See, for example, Leviticus and Deuteronomy
2 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The First and Second Discourses , (St.Martin's Press, New York, 1964), p. 116. Available at Concordia Library
3 The Imitation of Christ , Christian Classics; Revised edition (December 2003)
4 Albert Einstein, Science and religion , Conference on Science, Philosophy and Religion Their Relation to The Democratic Way of Life, 1940
5 Jean-Jacques Rousseau , First and Second Discourses . Edited by Roger D. Masters. Translated by Roger D. Masters and Judith R. Masters ( New York : St. Martin's Press , 1964 ), p. 50. Available at Concordia Library
6 Ecclesiastes 10:7, King James Bible
7 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The First and Second Discourses, (St.Martin's Press, New York, 1964).
8 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The First and Second Discourse, (St.Martin's Press, New York, 1964), p.179
9 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The First and Second Discourses, (St.Martin's Press, New York, 1964), p. 180
10 Immanuel Kant, "What is Enlightenment" in Perpetual peace and other essays (Hackett Publishing, 1983), p.44
11 Immanuel Kant, "Beginning of Human History" in Perpetual peace and other essays (Hackett Publishing, 1983), p. 54
12 Immanuel Kant, "Beginning of Human History" in Perpetual peace and other essays (Hackett Publishing, 1983), p.58
13 Immanuel Kant, "Beginning of Human History" in Perpetual peace and other essays (Hackett Publishing, 1983), p. 59
14 Immanuel Kant, "What is Enlightenment" in Perpetual peace and other essays (Hackett Publishing, 1983), p.43
15 Immanuel Kant, " What is Enlightenment" in Perpetual peace and other essays (Hackett Publishing, 1983), p.45